I've mentioned this before, but I really like to ease my way into basketball season. At this point, I do enough football writing that I haven't 100% thrown myself into basketball until early February. (And if things take shape as they might, I might not even be 100% then.) This being the case, I try to avoid studying any serious bracket projections until I've gotten the chance to draw up my own.
Below is the first official stab at Rock-M-Tology for the 2010-11 season. The goal will be to knock these out each Monday through the rest of the regular season and Championship Week. As we go along, I'll move from showing what I think the Committee should do to what I think the Committee will do. This one is all "should." I'll start comparing my results to those of Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm, etc., in the future, but for now, let's just get the ball rolling.
For those who haven't been paying a lot of attention, there is a new wrinkle with this year's NCAA Tournament. The NCAA has expanded the field to 68 teams, which is ... whatever. I didn't really care whether they expanded or not, but I do enjoy what they have chosen to do with the three extra teams. Instead of playing four play-in games to determine the four 16-seeds, they are splitting things up: two games between the bottom four teams in the field ... and two games between the last four teams in the field. So basically, you've got four teams fighting for two 16-seeds and four fighting for two 12- (or 11-, or 13-) seeds. I like this. It's a "split the difference" approach that actually might work.
The Tuesday and Wednesday after the field is announced, these four games will take place in Dayton with the title of The First Four, and the ball officially gets rolling. Of course, they're going to mess with all of our heads by now calling the round of 64 the "second round" and the round of 32 the "third round" (I do not approve). But hey ... for all the expansion scenarios we heard tossed around last year, this one has the fewest facepalm moments.
Who I Like
This is not a "Who's overrated" or "Who's underrated" list -- I'll get to that once I've begun to get a better feel for how a lot of teams are perceived. In fact, there is no dominant rationale in the two lists below. These are just some teams about which I have a reasonably strong opinion. (The natural reaction to my past three sentences: "Then why should I care?" Good point.)
Pittsburgh - For one reason or another, I've somehow seen more of Pittsburgh than any team not named Missouri this year, and they really are incredibly impressive. They take care of business against good teams, and, more often than not, they massacre iffy ones. They lost at home to schizophrenic Tennessee, and otherwise the only iffy result you can really dig up is a tight road win over Providence. They knocked out Texas and Maryland on a neutral court, they handled Syracuse with relative ease on MLK Day, they pummeled UConn (at home) and Georgetown (on the road). Like every other team, they have their issues -- they don't force turnovers, and they don't shoot free throws very well -- but I trust them more than any other team in the country at the moment.
Washington - They rank a relatively surprising sixth in Ken Pomeroy's rankings right now, and despite losing their starting point guard, Abdul Gaddy, they plugged in former blue-chipper Isaiah Thomas and kept on rolling. They have one of the most efficient offenses in the country, and they are 15 points away from an undefeated record. Oh, and they could be the most fun potential matchup for Missouri in a 4-5, second round game -- they don't foul, they don't get fouled, and they rank 14th in the country in pace. Up and down, up and down, up and down ... it would be a blast.
Marquette - Okay, I can't say I really like Marquette and their less-than-likable coach, but they are doing typically Marquette-like things right now, alternating between impressive, tight losses (5 points at Notre Dame, 1 point at Louisville, 1 point at Vanderbilt, 5 points to Wisconsin, 5 points vs. Duke) and blowout wins (22 points over Notre Dame). As is customary, they'll end up underseeded in the tourney, then, as a 10-seed, threaten to knock off the 2-seed in the second round. I have them barely in right now, but they've got a relatively easy (for the Big East) February slate, and they should be safely in when all is said and done.
Maryland - Another KenPom special. I have them barely in right now (playing Marquette in the "First Four," actually), but most of their seven losses are defensible (six were to KenPom Top 40 teams, only one by more than eight points), and they play outstanding defense. They need to take care of business at Virginia and Georgia Tech this week, but for now I'll say they're in ... and they could be a pretty frightening 11- or 12-seed.
Georgia - If only because of my epic mancrush on Travis Leslie. Or should I say, Travis "Rickey Paulding Incarnate" Leslie.
Who I Don't Like
UNLV - They're 15-5 with wins over Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and a Pullen-and-Kelly-less Kansas State. But when it doesn't go well, it really doesn't go well. They are a team capable of almost beating San Diego State on the road ... and a team capable of losing to UC-Santa Barbara at home and Colorado State by 15 on the road. (CSU's actually not terrible, but still.) They're going to end up with a decent NCAA Tourney seed, I bet, but I don't trust them to make much noise in the tourney.
Michigan State - Okay, this is piling on, I guess ... nobody really likes the Spartans right now. So instead, we'll say...
...Illinois - When the shots are falling, they are an incredible team. But as with UNLV, when it falls apart, it falls apart. After shooting Iowa and Northwestern out of the gym and knocking off always-tough Wisconsin, they've now lost three of four. When they're on, they can beat anybody (they almost beat No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday despite not being amazingly 'on'), but I don't trust them to put together back-to-back strong games in the first weekend of the tourney, and I don't trust them to do enough damage over the next month to get a good NCAA seed when all is said and done.
Memphis - I mean, come on guys ... if you're not going to compete for a big-time spot in the tourney, if your only real chance to get in is with the CUSA automatic bid, how about you let in somebody new this year? Like maybe Larry Eustachy and Southern Miss? (And yes, this is my only real complaint with Memphis. Love me some Eustachy.)
Last 8 In
The teams in bold are slated to play in two of the "First Four" play-in games.
Old Dominion (14-5)
Oklahoma State (14-5)
Boston College (14-6)
Washington State (14-6)
First 8 Out
I'm a big fan of the underdog and the mid-major, and this list displeased me. Four major conference teams get the four play-in bids, while mid-majors are the first three out. Honestly, though, Butler and UTEP should be a lot further out than this. Butler's currently in third place in their conference, and UTEP 1-4 versus KenPom Top 100 teams.
St. John's (11-7)
Kansas State (12-7)
The bubble will start to take on a completely different form in future weeks. First of all, Big East teams will continue to knock each other out a bit -- right now I have ten Big East teams in the field, but I don't expect more than 7-8 when all is said and done. Plus, I think the Big 12's in-or-out list will change dramatically.
As mentioned above, I don't expect that 10 Big East teams will end up in the field ... but right now they haven't done enough to get some eliminated yet. The Big Ten is pretty stable at six, while the ACC could end up with anywhere between three and seven. The Big 12 is in flux right now -- OSU's in the field, but probably not for long; meanwhile, I figure either Baylor or Kansas State (or both) will do enough to make the field by early March, not to mention a team like Colorado, who played themselves way out of the field this week (losses to Nebraska and Oklahoma do you no favors) but could conceivably get hot again.
10 - Big East
6 - Big Ten, ACC
5 - Big 12, SEC
4 - Pac-10
3 - Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Colonial
2 - Missouri Valley
Hampton (14-4) vs Lamar (5-9)
Maine (11-7) vs Texas Southern (8-9)
UCLA (13-6) vs Maryland (12-7)
Washington State (14-6) vs Marquette (13-7)
Southeast Regional (New Orleans)
1 Ohio State (20-0) vs 16 Hampton-Lamar
8 Cincinnati (17-3) vs 9 Wichita State (15-4)
5 Washington (15-4) vs 12 VCU (15-5)
4 Florida (15-4) vs 13 Washington State-Marquette
6 UNLV (15-5) vs 11 Michigan State (11-7)
3 Texas (16-3) vs Bucknell (14-7)
7 North Carolina (13-5) vs 10 Richmond (15-5)
2 Villanova (17-2) vs 15 Ball State (12-3)
in Washington, DC
East Regional (Newark)
1 Duke (18-1) vs 16 Austin Peay (11-8)
8 Cleveland State (16-3) vs 9 George Mason (14-5)
5 West Virginia (13-5) vs 12 UCLA-Maryland
4 Texas A&M (16-2) vs 13 Coastal Carolina (14-2)
6 Vanderbilt (14-4) vs 11 Xavier (13-5)
3 Connecticut (16-2) vs 14 Memphis (15-4)
7 Illinois (14-6) vs 10 Belmont (18-3)
2 BYU (18-1) vs 15 Long Beach (9-10)
Southwest Regional (San Antonio)
1 Kansas (18-1) vs 16 Maine-Texas Southern
8 Utah State (18-2) vs 9 Georgia (14-4)
5 Georgetown (14-5) vs 12 Boston College (14-6)
4 Wisconsin (15-4) vs 13 Oakland (13-8)
6 Arizona (16-4) vs 11 Old Dominion (14-5)
3 Syracuse (18-2) vs 14 Fairfield (15-4)
in Washington, DC
7 Louisville (15-4) vs 10 Virginia Tech (13-5)
2 Purdue (17-3) vs 15 Northern Colorado (9-7)
West Regional (Anaheim)
1 San Diego State (18-0) vs 16 Florida Atlantic (13-6)
8 Temple (13-5) vs 9 Florida State (15-5)
5 Notre Dame (16-4) vs 12 Tennessee (12-7)
4 Missouri (16-3) vs 13 Harvard (11-3)
6 St. Mary's (15-3) vs 11 Oklahoma State (14-5)
3 Kentucky (15-4) vs 14 College of Charleston (14-6)
7 Minnesota (15-4) vs 10 Missouri State (16-4)
2 Pittsburgh (19-1) vs 15 Long Island (14-5)
My At-First-Glance Final Four
Ohio State, Duke, Kansas, Pittsburgh
Second glance: Texas, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, San Diego State
Missouri's inevitable path to destiny™ (ahem)
Harvard, Notre Dame, San Diego State, Pittsburgh, Kansas, Duke